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Posted by on Oct 26, 2010

Thinking and Feeling in the Hospital

My wife was recently hospitalized (she’s fine now) and during an emotionally wrenching 6-day saga I served as air-traffic controller for a lot of communication from outside the hospital with and about her.

One problem with being the in leadership and professional development business is that you cannot avoid seeing situations through certain lenses, some of which I want to share here.

What jumped out most for me was noticing how people tended to respond to the news that things were definitely not well in one of two ways.

Some people immediately wanted to know what was happening – an analytical, fact-driven narrative of the medical situation in order to understand what was happening, and what was needed that they could provide to help.

Others, however, immediately went to the emotional realm – how Linda was feeling, how I was feeling, how our daughter was handling the news. Their emotional expressions of support stood out.

For those of you familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, you can probably recognize the preference for Thinking judgments in the former, and the preference for Feeling judgments in the latter. Thinkers generally want to know what is, while Feelers focus more on the human side of whatever it is is.

What struck me was the language. The vocabulary of Thinkers was populated with words like “cause, events, diagnosis, outlook, facts,” while the parlance of the Feelers included words and phrases such as “Tell Linda that we love her, what can I do to help? This is weighing on us all, and know you’re not alone.”

With type, there is no right or wrong, there is just different – a concept that may seem easy to cognitively “get,” but which in real life tends to produce a lot of judgments and conflict. A legitimate question is: Which preference was more useful? And the answer – and the key to understanding Type generally – is “both.”

You want people like doctors, specialists, nurses to get very fact-oriented and operate from a logical, rational, technically correct perspective. A life may be hanging in the balance.

At the same time, since we are human beings, you also want people to connect with you, feel your pain, empathize and sympathize. At one point, during the darkest hours of not knowing what had happened to my wife, a nurse simply put her hand on my shoulder and said, “I know how hard this must be.” This expression of support brought tears. I didn’t want the nurse to step away from her responsibility to administer medication properly, report vital signs or update a chart, but the Feeling element was huge.

Doctors who have a good bedside manner, and are emotionally intelligent, get sued at a fraction of the rate of those who don’t. Both Thinking and Feelings matter.

For leaders, the question is whether they can bring both to the game. The bad news is leadership is overwhelmingly populated by Thinkers, leaving a real deficit in the Feeling domain. No wonder engagement levels, a sense of meaningful connection and genuine commitment toward leaders on the part of employees are so low.

A good gut check for any leader is: Am I over-relying on my preference, or can I flex enough to incorporate behaviors, actions and communication that come from the other end of the dichotomy?

Simple examples for Thinking leaders include asking how individuals are doing – not just their work projects, but them. It could be sharing a story about something that happened to you that creates disclosure or transparency, particularly if there is a human dimension in it. (This makes it easier for others to talk about how they are doing or what they are going through.) It could be to show genuine appreciation for the person.

Simple moves. Potentially big results.


  1. Great post Mark! I went though a similar experience with my father-in-law recently and saw some of the same behaviors you describe so well. In my case I ultimately fell into the role of starting the conversation about when it might be appropriate to let go and what did our loved one really want. This required a real balance of both the feeling and thinking judgments on everyone’s part.

    An upcoming post on the Project & Program Management blog will deal with a situation in a jury room where I had to recognize the needs of many different types and utilize some of the skills we teach in the MBTI setting to come to a successful resolution.

  2. Thank you Mark for sharing this intimate experience to teach us about leadership from a different perspective.
    Best wishes for you and your family
    Alina Camacho

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